2012 Connecticut Preview - Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Connecticut Husky Defense
Preview 2012 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: If Connecticut competes for a league title this fall, it'll probably do so on the backs of the defense. The team returns no fewer than eight starters from a unit that will probably harbor an all-star at each level. The biggest worry is at defensive tackle, where the graduations of Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin could leave the team vulnerable on running plays. There's hope that senior Ryan Wirth's dominant spring will carry over into the fall, and that Shamar Stephen is ready to start reaching his enormous potential. Otherwise, the Huskies are stacked. The end rotation of Trevardo Williams, Jesse Joseph and Teddy Jennings is dynamite. Last season's three leading tacklers, linebackers Jory Johnson, Sio Moore and Yawin Smallwood, are back for another year. And the secondary has to be better than it was in 2011, when it gave up too many touchdown passes. Everyone returns to the defensive backfield, including the attacking corner tandem of seniors Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Gratz was a Second Team All-Big East performer. Wreh-Wilson battled injuries all year, but has next-level cover skills when he's at full strength. Connecticut could boast a championship-caliber D in 2012, putting even more pressure on the offense to start carry its weight for a change.
Star of the defense: Senior DE Trevardo Williams
Tackles: Jory Johnson, 97
Sacks: Trevardo Williams, 12.5
Interceptions: Sio Moore, Dwayne Gratz, Ty-Meer Brown, 3
Player who has to step up and become a star:Junior DT Shamar Stephen
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Yawin Smallwood
Best pro prospect: Senior CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Williams, 2) Wreh-Wilson, 3) Senior LB Sio Moore
Strength of the defense: The ends, the linebackers, the corners, creating turnovers, generating pressure
Weakness of the defense:The tackles, the safeties, yielding big plays through the air
While a couple of key starters on the interior, Kendall Reyes and Twyon Martin, are gone, the Huskies believe they're capable of maintaining a trend of being very feisty up front. There are no qualms about the ends. Senior Trevardo Williams will bring the flash from the outside, a speedy edge rusher coming off a breakout year for the Huskies. A blur coming off the edge, he collected 43 tackles, 15 stops for loss, a Big East-best 12.5 sacks and two forced fumbles to earn a spot on the All-Big East Second Team. While only 6-2 and 233 pounds, he'll use his quickness and burst off the snap to avoid getting tied up, and make a bee line to the backfield.
The favorite to join Williams on the outside will be 6-3, 259-pound senior Jesse Joseph, who'll play this season with something to prove. He was never quite right after missing the early part of the season with an injury, failing to build on a terrific junior year. A season after notching 12 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, he was only able to manage 29 stops, 2.5 tackles for loss and a lone sack in 2011. Assuming he's healthy, Joseph has way too much natural ability to not rebound and recapture his 2010 form.
Although he's going to get a challenge from the likes of 6-4, 270-pound junior Tim Willman, Ted Jennings still appears to be the Huskies' most reliable option off the bench. The 6-6, 254-pound senior made the first five starts of his career, and finished with 25 tackles, eight stops for loss and 3.5 sacks. He's an ideal veteran to provide insurance and a lift coming off the bench.
The Huskies will be starting over at tackle. Filling the role of the space-eater and more traditional run stopper will be junior Shamar Stephen. He's a 6-5, 317-pound force on the inside, with enough experience to flourish in an expanded role. He actually started eight games as a rookie, before earning his second letter with 17 tackles in 2011.
The smaller, quicker version of the tackles will be senior Ryan Wirth who is coming off a head-turning spring camp. Although just 6-3 and 271 pounds, he's quick and tough, and willing to fight through the blocks in order to make a play. He was unblockable in the spring game, routinely whipping his teammates to the backfield.
Watch Out For … Joseph to rebound in a big way. The talent is there, much the way it was in 2010, but he just wasn't able to play at full strength in 2011. Now that he's healthy again—and posing for NFL types—he's liable to challenge Williams for the team lead in sacks.
Strength: The defensive ends. With Williams on one side and a healthy Joseph on the other flank, the Huskies are going to be a nightmare for opposing tackles this season. Neither can be double-teamed, and both are eyeing double-digit sack totals in 2012. If Joseph remains at 100%, this will be one of the underrated bookends in the game this fall.
Weakness: Depth. Jennings aside, Connecticut is going to be very young on the B team. Sure, there's potential, and the school has done a great job of coaching up linemen in the past, but the safety net isn't what it used to be. The starters might need to log more minutes in the early going until the backups get comfortable.
Outlook: Quietly, the Huskies perennially do a very nice job of developing D-line units. And this year ought to be no different. They'll be tenacious off the edge with Williams and Joseph, and better than advertised on the interior. Sure, Reyes and Martin leave big holes, but it was no accident that Connecticut ranked No. 4 nationally in run defense, and No. 13 in sacks. Keep an eye on Stephen, who could be the program's next pro-caliber tackle.
Unit Rating: 7.5
Everyone is back from a year ago … and then some. Built around Sio Moore, the Huskies ought to be in great shape at the second level of the defense. The 6-2, 229-pound starter at strongside must be part stealth bomber, because he somehow continues to fly beneath the radar, both regionally and nationally. Despite piecing together terrific back-to-back seasons, the senior is still waiting for his first appearance on the All-Big East Team. In each of the last two campaigns, he's posted no fewer than 86 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. In fact, only Cincinnati DT Derek Wolfe had more stops behind the line in the conference than Moore's 16 a year ago. Plus, he's a terrific pass defender, breaking up nine passes and picking off three in 2011. He plays the position with maximum aggression, never idling his motor or taking a play off. There's not a lot more he can do on the field to get noticed, so now it's up to observers to simply start paying more attention to the work being done by No. 3 in blue and white.
In the middle, precocious sophomore Yawin Smallwood is back for another season in the lineup. An improbable playmaker so early in his career, he racked up 94 tackles, 2.5 stops for loss, 1.5 sacks and four pass breakups. The 6-3, 235-pounder also scored a pair of touchdowns, one on a pick and another on a fumble return. Always a good athlete, he spent last year improving as a technician and a student of the game. Smallwood is still evolving with his instincts and reads, which bodes very well for his future.
Putting a bow on the starting unit is 6-1, 227-pound senior Jory Johnson, the standard-bearer at strongside. The speedy veteran took full advantage of his first season as a regular, producing a team-high 97 tackles, seven stops for loss, six pass breakups and two interceptions. Johnson bolsters his athletic ability by being one of the defense's smartest players, knowing where the flow of the play is headed, and taking good angles in run and pass defense.
Providing seasoned depth for Johnson—and the entire corps—will be 6-0, 242-pound senior Ryan Donohue, a transfer from Maryland. The two-time letterwinner while with the Terrapins will offer assistance on special teams, while providing a veteran presence from off the bench. He's a tough and stout inside linebacker who does his best work on running downs.
Watch Out For … the staff to blitz liberally. Although the Huskies may not need a ton of pass rush help, considering their stable of ends, why not turn this crew loose? The starters all possess the speed, quickness and timing to wreak havoc on delayed blitzes. It also helps that the corners are capable of holding up in man coverage.
Strength: Experience. The Huskies return all three starters, two of whom are seniors. Plus, the addition of Donohue means that another veteran of this level will be coming off the bench. Led by Moore, the program boasts three seniors with a legitimate shot of contending for All-Big East honors.
Weakness: Overall depth. Yeah, the insertion of Donohue into the two-deep certainly helps, but behind Moore and Smallwood are a pair of unproven redshirt freshmen, Jefferson Ashiru and Marquise Vann, respectively. Remaining healthy is more important than ever for a group that's top heavy, yet young after the starters.
Outlook: A work-in-progress in 2011, the Connecticut linebackers have come a long way in a short period of time. The starters are outstanding, arguably the best trio in the Big East. And the best is yet to come for a unit that broke in two new regulars last fall. Moore is vastly underrated, as are Smallwood and Johnson, who'll once again make a slew of plays all over the field this fall.
Unit Rating: 7.5
This is a huge season for the Connecticut secondary, which houses the requisite talent, but now needs to start delivering on it. The defensive backfield was burned regularly in 2011, partially due to injuries. Senior CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, for example, missed almost half of the year to a knee injury, robbing the Huskies of their best cover corner. Still, despite the abbreviated stint, he still managed to collect 37 tackles, two picks and nine passes defended. The 6-0, 190-pounder played just a single year of high school football, yet quickly made up ground with his athleticism and great hips. Wreh-Wilson has a chance to fly up draft boards assuming all goes well this season.
Hoping to form a dynamic duo with Wreh-Wilson at cornerback is 6-0, 198-pound senior Dwayne Gratz, a member of last year's All-Big East Second Team. The veteran of 29 career starts contributed 53 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and seven pass breakups in 2011. He has good size, above average speed and the awareness in coverage to jump routes and redirect passes. While he'll play in the shadows of Wreh-Wilson this fall, Gratz, too, has started attracting the attention of pro scouts.
The program's top reserve at cornerback will be Taylor Mack, a veteran of 21 career games. Mostly a special teams performer, the 5-9, 170-pounder made just a pair of tackles in 2011, but will need to be far more active on defense now that Gary Wilburn has graduated.
The team will be battle-tested at safety as well. At free safety, 6-1, 192-pound sophomore Byron Jones returns after starting eight games in his rookie year. He made 51 tackles, broke up six passes and picked off two others, gradually getting better as the season unfolded. While still raw in his development, he's still evolving as both a run and pass defender.
Manning strong safety will be 6-0, 193-pound sophomore Ty-Meer Brown, who also cut his teeth as a rookie. A starter in the final seven games of 2011, he made 45 tackles, three interceptions and a team-best 10 pass breakups. The former option quarterback in high school possesses the necessary physical tools to be successful, but still needs to learn the nuances of his position in the defensive backfield.
Watch Out For … Wreh-Wilson to put it all together. Never quite right a year ago, he returns for his final year eager to put 2011 behind him, while grabbing the attention of more NFL people. He has a golden opportunity to turn his finale into a salary run and numerous postseason accolades.
Strength: Ball skills. With Wreh-Wilson and Gratz leading the way, the Huskies are a bunch of thieves when the ball is in the air. Last year's team was second in the league with 18 interceptions, just one off the Big East mark set by Rutgers. Now that everyone is back and healthy, Connecticut is capable of overtaking the Scarlet Knights, and rank among the nation's leaders in picks.
Weakness: Protecting the red zone. While the Huskies were second in the Big East in picks, they were also last in the conference in touchdown passes allowed, with 22. The team was torched by the likes of Western Michigan, West Virginia and Pitt, showcasing a level of defensive futility that cannot be repeated in 2012.
Outlook: Assuming injuries don't factor into the equation for a second straight year, Connecticut has to be improved in pass defense in 2012. There's too much raw talent for that not to be the case. Wreh-Wilson is poised for his breakthrough moment, while Gratz serves as a worthy accomplice. The safeties are young and developing, but still a year older than when they did their apprenticeship in 2011. The parts are in place for the Huskies to be very feisty and opportunistic out of the secondary this fall.
Unit Rating: 7
The Huskies' top priority on special teams will be to replace Dave Teggart, last season's First Team All-Big East placekicker. The likely successor is junior Chad Christen who has patiently waited for this opportunity to get on the field. He's handled kickoffs the last two seasons, displaying good pop by averaging 65.7 yards in 2011.
The situation at punter is far more stable thanks to the return of Second Team All-Big East pick Cole Wagner. The junior averaged 41.1 yards in his second year as the regular, but was particularly valuable on directional kicks and with his hang time. Of his 80 punts, 21 landed inside the 20-yard line, and 29 were fair caught.
The catalyst of the return game will once again be senior Nick Williams, a dangerous playmaker whenever he has the ball in his hands. The All-Big East pick in 2010 is averaging a healthy 28.3 career yards on kickoffs, and will also be the top punt returner as well.
Watch Out For … Christen's comfort level in the clutch. The Huskies were able to count on Teggart in the past, a major plus for a team that participates in plenty of close games. They'll need similar consistency from Christen, or else it's going to directly impact the bottom line.
Strength: The return game. Williams is a true gamebreaker, an explosive extension of an offense that really needs his presence. He's cat-quick, sees the whole field and doesn't require much help to burn opponents through the wedge.
Weakness: Covering kicks. The Huskies have got to do a better job of covering kickoffs than they did a year ago. In 2011, Connecticut ranked 109th in the country, routinely getting singed for big plays. If the team can't plug the holes in the coverage teams, someone is liable to lose his job over it.
Outlook: Teggart leaves a big hole, but Connecticut feels as if it might still have one of the league's better special teams units. Wagner is a quality punter, and Williams is always a threat when he's near the ball. If the Huskies can tighten up in coverage, and Christen does his job, this group will once again be an asset to the program as a whole.
Unit Rating: 7
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